Women in suits buzzed around, coffee and business cards in hand. I stood in the sunny atrium of the Atlanta Hilton Hotel, taking in the sights and sounds of women networking with representatives from companies and organizations sponsoring the 2018 Forté MBA Women’s Leadership Conference. The conference, hosted by Forté from June 15-16, 2018, was advertised as an event where women could “explore career paths, meet recruiters and mentors, and hear from today’s most influential businesswomen.”
When the Scheller College of Business (in which I am a second-year student in the Evening MBA Program) offered me a ticket to the conference, I jumped at the opportunity to attend. As someone who is pursuing an MBA in order to change to a career in consulting, I figured I could gain a lot from the panels and networking opportunities.
Amidst the sounds of conversations and informal interviews in the atrium, I scanned the brochure in my hands, trying to select a breakout session that spoke to me. I had just wrapped up an interactive session on the subject of IBM’s “Design Thinking”—the company’s user-centered approach for solving problems. Like everyone else in the atrium, I saw multiple opportunities for face-to-face connection with employers. However, when my eyes landed upon a session called “A Sustainable and Socially Responsible Career,” I decided to save networking for later.
I have to admit that I was a bit uncertain about what the session would offer. The word “sustainable” takes on a different meaning for each person or firm. Often, the word is narrowly focused on environmental issues. In current times, sustainability can even be a polarizing topic. Say “sustainability,” and people seem either to rant about what a company is not doing to be sustainable—or to shrug and walk away since they associate the word only with tree-hugging. If I have learned anything in the process of getting my MBA at Georgia Tech, it is that a wide spectrum exists between these two extremes, and that most people are not actually aware of where on the spectrum their opinions fall.
Part of me worried that panelists would stand up and say that they had become disenchanted with corporate America, so they had quit their jobs to work on farms and in doing so found true happiness. I would be left wondering what their stories had to do with me. Ironically, I am one of those people who left the private sector in search of more meaningful work. However, my path did not lead me to a farm but rather to an MBA program in which I could gain the technical skills I would need to be considered hirable for roles in which I could effect change in society.
Fortunately, the panelists understood their audience well. In fact, they had once been us: business students eager to work for respected companies, to take on the world’s challenges, and to have successful careers.
Repeatedly in their stories, the women articulated how they searched for career opportunities with the intention to have listed on their resumes the names of companies whose values aligned with their own. So often, we forget to think about what we really want and end up chasing an attractive dream. It is not until we reach the goal that we realize it wasn’t what we wanted at all. When selecting a first job after graduation, it’s just as important for us to prioritize our values and long-term goals as it is to think about salary, benefits, and opportunities for growth.
These successful women had contributed to breaking many barriers for those of us in the audience who are early in our careers. Chris Hagler, a Georgia Tech alumna (MSM 93) and leader at Ernst & Young, repeated what a boss told her years ago: “The only green thing I care about is my Porsche.” A few of the panelists had to learn about sustainability on their own, in some instances taking on projects at lower rates in order to raise awareness in their companies and to accomplish work in which they took pride. Luckily for those of us entering the field today, more businesses are actively exploring sustainable practices.
In this new era, where business meets sustainability, our job is to use our functional skills to calculate value and translate that value-add to the decision-makers who can effect change. The simple secret to making the connection between business and sustainability is that sustainable practices equal savings, whether in dollars saved on energy bills or in higher staff retention rates because the company invested in ways to make human resources last longer and evolve with the organization. This is something from which everyone in business—regardless of industry—can benefit.
As the moderator (and my professor in Business Strategies for Sustainability) Beril Toktay noted, there is more than one career “lane” in which you can drive. What she meant is that you can care about sustainability and incorporate it into your career in whatever capacity works best for you. Starting an environmental non-profit is not your only career option if you want to make the world a better place. Who knows—your sector may see technological changes that push you into a sustainability-focused role. Or you could simply add value to your organization within your functional area by keeping an open mind to sustainable practices and seizing opportunities as they arise.
The key takeaway for me was that valuing sustainability and having an ambitious business career do not need to be mutually exclusive. I’ve learned in my MBA education that I can honor my values by incorporating sustainability into my work no matter which path I choose. As I move forward in my career and consider each potential employer I must think about whether its values align with my own. It put my mind at ease to hear successful career women speak with pride about what they’ve learned and accomplished as they’ve shifted in roles over the years. I’m hopeful that through their efforts—as well as through the future contributions from the conference attendees and other likeminded individuals—employers will increasingly value sustainable practices and incorporate them whenever possible.
So, if you ever find yourself in a situation with your boss and she mentions her green Porsche, I urge you first to take the opportunity to compliment her on her choice of color. Then, mention that you, too, have a passion for “green,” and pitch an initiative to make your organization more environmentally sustainable and socially responsible. Maybe your idea will come to fruition, or maybe it won’t. At the very least you will have planted a seed.
Marybeth Bucklen is a second-year student in the Evening MBA Program at the Scheller College of Business.